Friday, December 24, 2010

Santa Claus: Fact or fiction?

Santa Claus visits the author's home.

As Christmas approaches, I once again don my tinfoil hat to delve into the world of conspiracy theories.  In this edition, I examine what is reputed to be one of the world’s oldest and largest conspiracies.  If true, this conspiracy would dwarf the Kennedy assassination, the Roswell incident, and the cover-ups of the September 11 attacks.  This conspiracy would involve millions of people around the world over hundreds of years and reach all the way to the US military’s North American Air Defense Command (NORAD).  It permeates the film and publishing industries as well as retail stores throughout the Western world.  I speak, of course, of the Great Santa Claus Conspiracy.

For years, it has been alleged that Santa Claus is a myth.  Conspiracists point to the outlandish claims regarding the Red-Suited Elf:  That he purportedly operates an aerial sleigh pulled by eight flying reindeer (nine if Rudolph is included), that this sleigh is of sufficient cargo capacity to carry enough toys to satisfy the world’s population of children and, as Dave Barry might put it, “enough candy to meet the nation’s zit needs well into the next century.” 

The conspiracist’s claims have shown up in numerous popular culture references over past decades.  A Norman Rockwell painting called “The Discovery” shows a shocked boy finding a Santa suit in his parent’s dresser.  A popular Christmas song, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” also alleges that Santa is really the child’s father in disguise.  Numerous television shows, movies, and comic strips make similar accusations.

One of the most significant objections is why elves toiling in the toy shops of the North Pole produce toys that are so similar to toys produced by conventional corporations that they can be readily exchanged at local retailers.  Don’t Santa’s elves respect copyrights and patents?  (Granted, this doesn’t seem to stop the Chinese either.)  Similarly, the financial burden of giving free toys to the children of the world would be staggering.  Charity is not cheap.

The conspiracists, however, ignore inconvenient facts that do not support their claims.  For example, the reality is that Santa Claus is a historical figure.  Originally known as St. Nicholas, Santa was a bishop of the Christian church in Myra, Turkey in the fourth century AD.  St. Nicholas was persecuted and imprisoned for his faith by the Roman Emperor Diocletian.  St. Nicholas took Jesus’ instruction to the rich, young ruler to “sell all your possessions and give to the poor.”  He was known for his generosity and for being a protector of children.

Many stories and legends grew up around Nicholas.  In one, a poor man could not afford the dowries that were customarily required to entice men to marry his three daughters.  Since they could not find husbands, they were destined to be sold into slavery.  On three separate occasions, Nicholas supposedly tossed bags of gold into the window of their house to provide a dowry for the girls.  The bags reportedly landed in stockings or shoes by the fire, giving rise to the custom of children hanging up stockings to await Nicholas’ gifts.

1863 depiction of Santa Claus by Thomas Nast
St. Nicholas died on December 6, AD 343 and therefore cannot be the modern Santa.  Instead the example that St. Nicholas set for Christian charity and loving compassion for children inspired many other copycat Santas throughout the centuries.  The name “Santa Claus” may be a corruption of the Dutch (“Sinter Klaas”) and German (“Sankt Nicklaus”) names for St. Nicholas that appeared in New York City after the American Revolution.  The combination of Old World terms is appropriately American.

When Santa’s origins are taken account, the objections of the conspiricists can be explained.  For example, since Christmas is celebrated only by Christians, Santa is not required to visit all the children in the world.  Christians make up only about one third of the world’s population, which shortens Santa’s itinerary markedly.  Not even all Christian children celebrate Christmas with Santa.  A growing number of Christian parents do not teach their children about Santa.  In these cases, the parents clearly give the Christmas gifts.  Santa doesn’t go where he isn’t invited and his workload is further reduced.

Similarly, the fewer gifts required would also ease Santa’s financial burden.  Further, growing up in northeast Georgia, the author’s parents explained that although Santa provided and delivered the toys to good boys and girls, he did require a contribution from the parents.  Subsequent fact-checking with my classmates confirmed that the story was consistent.  My friend’s had heard the same thing.  This explains the reason that Santa’s gifts reflect socioeconomic level.  If the parents must help Santa defray the cost of gifts, not all parents can afford dirt bikes, ponies, solid-gold iPods, etc. 

A reasonable for explanation for the apparent copyright infringement by North Pole toy workers is that Santa likely works out licensing agreements with the major toy companies.  Licensing is a common practice in many industries in which the product’s developer gives other companies the legal right to produce their own version.  In Santa’s case, the licensed products are indistinguishable from toys made in conventional factories. 

With respect to the conspiracy claims of the various media, there are also numerous other conspiracy claims on various subjects.  There are a myriad of unproven theories about every subject under the sun, some plausible, most not.  In just the past few years, we have been subjected to claims of a “vast right wing conspiracy” against President Clinton, claims that President Bush was complicit in the 9/11 attacks, and claims that President Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim.  Just because it’s in print, it doesn’t mean it’s true.

The conspiracy against Santa Claus has been going on for over one hundred years.  In 1897, eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Sun asking for the truth about Santa.  The paper’s editorial response makes many excellent points about the Santa conspiracy.  First noting that the Santa skeptics are the product of a skeptical age who lack the ability to believe in anything that they cannot see.  It also points out the maxim of scientists that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. 

Like many things in life, reality is not limited by what we can see.  We can’t see the wind, but we know it is there.  We can’t see an atom, but we take it on faith that its subatomic bonds will not allow a chair to fade into nothingness as we sit down.  We can’t see God, but we know He is there because He makes His presence known in the world through His creation (Romans 1:20).  

Similarly, we may not see Santa Claus flying through the sky on Christmas Eve, but we can see the effects of his annual journey.  We see Santa in the Christmas Spirit of hope through Christ, generosity to our fellow man, and childlike faith.  The colors of Santa’s suit (and Christmas in general) reflect the Christian origins of the holiday.  Red represents the blood of Christ that was shed on the cross to pay for humanity’s sins.  White represents the purity and holiness of Jesus.  The green of the holly and Christmas trees stands for the hope of eternal life.  Silver and gold are associated with the Christmas star as well as the treasures brought by the Magi.

Whether there is one Santa or a hundred thousand Santas around the world, there is ample of evidence of the Santa’s mark on the world.  The compassion and generosity of Santa Claus helps us to see the love and hope that Christ offers the world.  If Santa were nothing but the product of a vast, Christmas conspiracy, the world would be a colder and darker place indeed.

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